The overarching question posed Saturday at an open house about West Main Street was what the artery should look like as the 21st century unfolds. About 100 people at the Carver Recreation Center weighed in on the future of the rapidly-evolving road.
“This is about reimagining West Main to produce some construction documents so we can go ahead and make some physical improvements,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services.
The firm of Rhodeside & Harwell is working on a $340,000 study to create construction plans for sidewalks, bike lanes, street trees and other amenities between downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.
“The street is changing,” said Elliot Rhodeside, a consultant with Rhodeside & Harwell. “A hotel on the east side of the street is being built right now. The Battle Building is nearing completion. An apartment complex is under construction. These are all changing the face of West Main Street.”
Analysts will review the zoning code for the street, conduct a fiscal impact analysis of potential changes, and draft a master plan. Alternative design concepts will be presented to the public early next year. The goal is to have construction documents in place by summer.
Open house participants were asked several questions to gather feedback on the history, character, and other aspects of the street.
“Please make a plan to move vehicular traffic away from Main to Preston or Cherry to expand pedestrian and bicycle safety,” read one written comment about the road’s function as a transportation corridor.
Another person disagreed.
“Two lanes with parking is a must,” read another note. “Bike lanes are dangerous at best.”
One person suggested shutting the street down to vehicular traffic on Sundays, and another person said the entire street should become another pedestrian mall.
Ruth Stornetta, who commutes by bike to her job at UVa, hopes the study will recommend ways to make the street safer for cyclists.
“One of the biggest problems we have now cycling on West Main is car doors opening into our path,” Stornetta said. “West Main is one of the most level streets in the city and that’s why people like to run, walk and bike on the street.”
Architect John Matthews recently helped Landmark Properties get a student housing complex approved by the city and he is helping another firm with their request for a similar project. He said he came to the open house to give the perspective of developers.
“Even though I’m an architect and an urban planner, I’m also a resident,” he said. “Sometimes our voice gets hidden and we are thought of as paid voices when, in effect, we have an opinion, and that shouldn’t disqualify us from being able to express our vision for West Main Street.”
About 30 people took a tour of West Main Street that was led by Richard Guy Wilson, an architectural historian at UVa. He said he would like there to be some recognition that West Main is part of the Three Notched Road.
“For several centuries, this was the road you took if you were coming from Richmond and going to the Shenandoah Valley,” Wilson said.
Wilson said Thomas Jefferson purposely located the university away from downtown Charlottesville to put some distance between students and the town’s taverns. Ever since, the road has evolved to serve several transportation purposes. In the 19th century, hotels and taverns sprang up because of demand created by the railroad. In the 20th century, service stations and dealerships were built to accommodate the automobile.
Wilson said a new phase is underway in the 21st.
“Every place changes and nothing is put in formaldehyde, yet this is a really interesting long-term history of the evolution of the city,” Wilson said. “You have buildings from many different periods there reflecting different interests. How is it that we’re going to save some of that?”
Peter Castiglione, a co-owner of the restaurant Maya, said he been calling on the city to pay more attention to West Main for years. He said he was pleased at the turnout for the event.
“I was a little worried it was going to be just another planning thing, but it looks like maybe we’re going to get some actual motion and movement,” Castiglione said.
Castiglione said conditions on West Main Street have been more inviting ever since the Amtrak parking lot was paved and the city installed better lighting along the street.
“It’s been slowly but surely getting better with every little thing that gets done,” he said.
Deana Rhodeside said the fact that several construction projects are underway does not mean her firm’s final report will be irrelevant.
“There is still a lot that is unresolved on the corridor that this project can help move forward in terms of how the city starts to think about what happens in the future,” she said.
She said her firm worked on a streetscape for Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C., at a time of rapid expansion.
“By bringing a streetscape in to help define that area, it really pulled together that area and helped identify what the future should be for that area,” she said.
Matthews said he thinks it would be detrimental for the city if it rezoned West Main to restrict or constrain future development.
“The vitality and growth will increase when there are feet on the street,” he said. “Sensible, smart and reasonable development benefits everyone.”